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23/08/2014

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Review: Flight behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Climate change: a plausible premise makes for good fiction, says Jane Hill

Climate change: a plausible premise makes for good fiction, says Jane Hill.

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Few readers might consider that the topic of global climate change and how it may affect biodiversity would make a good page-turner. But Barbara Kingsolver has done this with her recent novel Flight Behaviour.

The novel follows Dellarobia Turnbow, who is struggling to make ends meet bringing up two young children within an unhappy marriage on a rundown Tennessee farm in the Appalachians. As she sets out to leave her current life behind, she encounters millions of overwintering monarch butterflies in the hills above her farm.

The novel then charts Dellarobia’s involvement with the research team of entomologists who come out to her farm to investigate the butterflies, intertwining her struggles in life that winter with those of the butterflies.

Weird events

The notion that climate change and the consequences of human actions on the planet will result in weird events lies at the heart of the story. Perhaps climate ‘weirding’ rather than climate warming.

In the story, monarch butterflies fail to overwinter in their usual place in Mexico, and instead turn up in the mountains above the Turnbow farm. This new site is much further north than the sites they usually occupy in Mexico, and the books charts the concerns of the scientists who worry that winter in the Appalachians will be too cold for them and wipe them out.

Several explanations are presented, and the reader gets to find out many of the issues about possible impacts of climate change on natural ecosystems, through discussions between Dellarobia and the head scientist (Dr Ovid Byron) who brings his research team to study the new butterfly site. 

For me, it’s an interesting idea that these scientists, particularly Dr Byron, are somehow odd because of their interest in butterflies. As Dellarobia’s friend says to her:

‘He flew across a whole damn country and drove to your place, to see butterflies?’

‘Did he seem, I don’t know, insane?’

Plausible science

Barbara Kingsolver has a background in biology and some of the ideas and scenarios presented in the novel are plausible. She name-checks famous monarch scientists (US scientist Prof Lincoln Brower), and all the equipment a field biologist might use to study overwintering insects, together with the field survey techniques they would use.

The book touches upon what we do and don’t know about migration in this species. Dellarobia wonders (as do professional biologists) how the butterflies navigate and how it is possible that the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the overwintering adults manage to find their way back, flying a route they themselves have not taken before. There is also an engaging section where Ovid introduces Dellarobia to the concept that correlation does not mean causation.

Will the book help readers understand how climate change may affect us and the species around us? Maybe. Kingsolver’s story revolves around a potentially calamitous change in the butterflies’ migration behaviour as a consequence of climate change.

Many scientists are seriously worried that over-wintering conditions in Mexico are deteriorating and that monarchs are threatened by climate change together with the loss of their forest habitats. We know migration patterns of other migratory species are changing, so the premise of the book is plausible.

Canary Islands

As for monarchs, holiday makers to the Canary Islands will come across monarchs that have got there by flying across the Atlantic to set up home (and apparently have then lost their inclination to migrate from these islands).  Some occasionally even get as far as the UK.

Enjoy reading the book and then go and watch butterflies.  If you can’t get to see the spectacular sight of millions of monarch adults clustered in huge bunches on trees at the overwintering site at Angangueo in Mexico, then there is always Tenerife.

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Professor Jane Hill
Jane Hill is Professor of Biology at the University of York. She studies the effect of climate change on insect migration
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